Welfare drug testing bill criticized in House committee hearing

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Opponents of a bill that would require drug testing of welfare recipients say it’s a measure that targets the poor.

“Investing in substance abuse treatment is an efficient use of taxpayer dollars, but expensive and unnecessary policies that are based more on stereotype and punishing the poor rather than on facts and evidence are not,” said Sean O’Leary, policy analyst with the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy.

O’Leary spoke out against SB 6 at a public hearing Friday morning before the House Judiciary Committee. The bill would require screening and testing of applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits.

He said other states have tried drug testing recipients, but have failed to identify a significant number of drug users.

“How is this policy going to help those who need help if it can’t find anyone who needs help?” he asked committee members.

Carey Jo Grace with the West Virginia Healthy Kids & Families Coalition drew from her own financial hardships. She said she struggled to raise her kids in a homeless environment, was on food stamps and didn’t know where they would live or how she would pay bills.

“Being poor isn’t fun,” she said. “It’s stressful enough and then having to worry about getting a drug test and what if you’re on medication that would cause you fail that drug test just adds another level of street to an already bad situation.”

Drug testing for these people is expensive, Grace added.

“We’re asking TANF recipients to cover further drug testing if they fail the initial one. These are people who don’t have money to start with,” she said.

The bill spells out a three-year pilot program to screen applicants in West Virginia where there is a “reasonable suspicion” they may be using drugs. A person would only lose their benefits after they failed a third drug test, but Jamie Lynn Crofts, legal director of the West Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, said it’s an invasion of privacy.

“SB 6 says that we as a state are okay with allowing the government to conduct incredibly invasive searches on its citizens with no probable cause and no warrant. Even if the courts were to uphold such a law, is that really something that we would want?” Crofts asked.

According to the bill, if an applicant fails the drug test for the first time he or she will maintain their benefits, but will need to enroll in a drug treatment program and a job training program. On the second offense, the applicant has the potential to lose their benefits for up to 12 months while completing the same programs. An applicant loses their benefits for life on the third offense.

The bill passed the state Senate with bipartisan support last month with a 32 to 2 vote.

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